Buena Vista ghosts follow diva Omara Portuondo
Mon Mar 27, 2006 8:24 AM ET
By Esteban Israel
HAVANA (Reuters) - Omara Portuondo swears the ghosts of Compay Segundo,
Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez follow her wherever she sings.
And at 75, the surviving star of the Buena Vista Social Club has a
hectic international touring schedule.
Last week the Cuban diva performed in Mexico. In April she will be in
Colombia, followed by a six-nation European tour in July and August and
on to Hungary in October.
"I miss them so much. They're always with me, on every stage," Portuondo
said in her dressing room before a recent concert.
Her smoky voice and sad "bolero" ballads that tell of lost love recall
Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf.
She was the only woman on the Buena Vista Social Club album recorded at
a jam session with guitarist Ry Cooder in 1996. It sold a million
copies, won a Grammy and relaunched the careers of a group of largely
Named after a seniors-only social club in a western Havana neighborhood,
the album sparked a revival of world interest in traditional Cuban
music, source of the rhythmic cha cha cha and mambo dances in the heady
days of 1940 and 1950s Havana.
The story of the musicians' late-life jump to international fame was
told in 1999 by German director Wim Wenders in his Oscar-nominated
documentary "Buena Vista Social Club."
But time has taken its toll on the band.
Its oldest member, guitarist and front man Compay Segundo, died in 2003
at age 95. Pianist Ruben Gonzalez passed away months later at 84. Singer
Ibrahim Ferrer died last year aged 78. A week ago, singer and composer
Pio Leyva died of a heart attack at 88.
As the curtain rises at Havana's National Theater at a recent
performance, Portuondo's sensual voice fills the auditorium. She steps
forward gingerly, looking down to avoid tripping on a cable.
Her opening song is a soulful bolero, "What's Left For Me to Live."
'JUST A LITTLE MULATTA'
Portuondo was born in Havana in 1930 when the city was thriving on sugar
wealth. Her mother came from a rich Spanish family and eloped with a
black baseball player.
The petite Portuondo started out in show business as a dancer at
Havana's famed Tropicana cabaret. In 1952, she formed a female vocal
quartet called Las D'Aida that once opened for Nat King Cole at the
"I'm just a little Cuban mulatta who loved music since I was a girl,"
she said. "I'm so happy to have the strength to continue," she added
backstage, changing out of sneakers into high heeled shoes.
By the time Ry Cooder invited her to join the Buena Vista project,
Portuondo had a singing career spanning four and half decades that
included countless recordings.
Unlike other veterans in the band, she was still singing in Latin
America and better off than they. Ferrer was shining shoes while
Gonzalez didn't even have a piano of his own and played at a ballet
school for a living.
It was her duet with Compay Segundo of the bolero "Veinte Anos" ("Twenty
Years") on the Buena Vista album, however, that shot her to global
"Today, many people all over the world know me as a symbol of Cuban
music, and I owe that to Buena Vista," she said.
Portuondo has recorded three solo albums, including "Dos Gardenias"
(2001) and "Flor de Amor" (2004), and she has appeared as guest singer
on a dozen more since her career relaunched.
And her passport continues to fill up with stamps: Macao, Hong Kong,
Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Seoul.
At every stop, she religiously sings "Twenty Years."
And misses Compay, his small hat and big cigar.
"Every time we went out on stage to sing the song, he would stand next
to me and put his hand on my backside," Portuondo recalled.
"I would tell him, 'Compay, please, you know my back well enough.' But
he was such a devil and we had the audience right in front of us. There
was nothing I could do."